Bruce Woelfel lives to ride the trains of Europe. He loves to eat, sleep and do all manner of life's activities aboard them. To Bruce, the plight of "Charlie," the mythical MTA commuter who had to "ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston," is a fate devoutly to be wished. Here are his 10 favorite train trips involving Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
1. Swiss Crystal Panoramic Express: Montreux - Zweizimmen (narrow gauge)
This exquisitely small-scaled train has uniquely designed front and rear cars with large glass windows through which tracks and preceding or receding landscapes can be viewed. There is also a delightful lounge car where one can enjoy a light snack of tea and pastries while scanning the passing sights. The trip takes only an hour and a half and rises precipitously above Lake Geneva from Montreux, snaking back and forth through hairpin turns past tiny hamlets, with panoramic views of the lake and snow covered Mont Blanc beyond, then continues through high meadows and forests to Zweizimmen where a standard gauge connection to Spiez is available. "Crystal" is limited to first-class passengers.
The more conventional Panoramic Express, with attractive first and second-class cars with large windows, but no lounge or other special features, travels the same route. "Crystal" makes the trip twice per day in each direction from July 3-October 31, and runs exclusively on Sundays the remainder of the year. "Panoramic" runs daily all year. Both accept Eurailpass and Swiss Pass. Other local trains run hourly.
- Schedule: Lv Montreux 8:21 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., Arr Zweizimmen 10:49 a.m. and 3:45 p.m. Lv Zweizimmen 10:43 a.m. and 4:53 p.m., Arr Montreux 12:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
- Rating: Accommodations 10/10; Food and Drink 7/10; View 10/10; Total Score 27/30
2. Austrian Robert Stolz and Transalpin: Zürich - Vienna; Zürich - Graz
Two equally excellent trains running between Zürich and Innsbruck, carry Swiss-built "panorama" cars with raised floors and very large curved windows. The route passes spectacular Austrian scenery: graceful bridges across perpendicular rock gorges, ancient castles, quaint and colorful little villages, and narrow valleys opening up to green forests and pristine alpine lakes. Transalpin ends in Vienna and the Robert Stolz train takes a different route after Innsbruck to end in Graz.
Eating aboard can be a delightful experience. Transalpin has a somewhat formal Austrian restaurant and Robert Stolz has a Swiss diner (housed in a German restaurant car), with more menu choices and a number of lighter options.
Recently aboard Transalpin, the chef reserved places for early and late lunches (before and after the stop at Innsbruck). The diner has large windows looking out on the mountain landscape and a quiet, cordial atmosphere: dark blue walls, blue carpet, light blue brocaded drapes, and subdued lighting. Two fixed-price luncheons including dessert and coffee were offered. The more elaborate meal soup, smoked salmon on toast, beef burgundy with noodles, Camembert cheese and vanilla pudding cost about $21.
To obtain seats in the observation cars (choice of smoking or nonsmoking), reservations are recommended aboard both trains.
- EC 162/3 Transalpin Schedule: Lv Zürich 8:42 a.m., Arr Innsbruck 1:16 p.m. Lv Innsbruck 2:44 p.m., Arr Zürich 6:50 p.m.
- EC 168/9 Robert Stolz Schedule: Lv Zürich 11:20 a.m., Arr Innsbruck 3:13 p.m., Arr Graz 9:00 p.m. Lv Graz 11:00 a.m., Arr Innsbruck 4:53 p.m., Arr Zürich 8:41 p.m..
- Rating: Accommodations 8/10, Food and Drink 9/10; View 9/10; Total Score 26/27
3. Swiss Ticino: Zürich - Milan
The enhanced opportunity to enjoy this route's craggy scenery between Zürich and the Italian border because of "Ticino's" "panorama" cars (similar to those on Robert Stolz and Transalpin), make this the most interesting trip on standard gauge rail within Switzerland. The most exciting part of the journey south comes after completing passage through the nine-mile St. Gotthard Tunnel, which pierces a mountain barrier that formerly divided Italian-speaking Ticino from the North.
The route negotiates the famous "triple spiral" section, which circles in and out of the mountains and observes the same mountain village from three different vantage points.
Ticino is the best of several good trains along this busy route and the only one to carry "panorama" cars. It also conveys a full-service Swiss diner. Reservations are advised for seats in the observation car.
- EC 51/6 Ticino Schedule: Lv Zürich 8:53 a.m. (Airport 11 minutes earlier), Arr Milan 1:30 p.m. Lv Milan 3:00 p.m., Arr Zürich 7:28 p.m. (Airport 17 minutes later)
- Rating: Accommodations 9/10; Food and Drink 7/10; View 9/10; Total Score 25/30
4. Pablo Casals Zürich, Bern, Lausanne and Geneva - Barcelona (overnight)
A luxurious "hotel-train" with restaurant, bar and roomy compartments, which runs three days per week, "Casals" is currently Europe's best overnight train. its elegant Spanish restaurant serves several choices of freshly prepared main courses. For a main dish of steak or sea bass with soup, salad, cheese, pastry, wine and coffee the cost is about $90 for two, including wine and tip. Lighter fare and beverages are available from the bar.
Innovatively designed compartments, the largest being similar in size and amenities to cruise ship staterooms, provide a variety of sleeping arrangements. Approximate prices: four-passenger second-class sleeping compartments with sink, $70/person; two-passenger first-class compartments with sink, $100/person; and "Grand Classe" suites for one or two with separate toilet and shower, $300/total. Separate fare or Eurailpasses plus supplements for reserved compartments.
- EN 272/4 Pablo Casals Schedule: Lv Zürich Mon, Wed, Fri 7:33 p.m., Bern 8:47 p.m., Lausanne 9:57 p.m., Geneva 10:49 p.m., Arr Barcelona 9:10 a.m. next morning. Lv Barcelona Franca Tue, Thu, Sun 8:15 p.m., Arr Geneva 5:52 a.m., Lausanne 6:40 a.m., Bern 7:51 a.m., Zürich 9:15 a.m. next morning.
- Rating: Accommodations 10/10; Food and drink 9/10; View 5/10; Total Score 24/30
5. Swiss Glacier Express: Zermatt, Brig, Chur - St. Moritz (narrow gauge)
A beautiful ride, surely one of the most scenic in Europe, this is the most famous of the privately-run Swiss railways, a charming journey with fantastic views and a very good Swiss restaurant. Although lacking the innovative design features of Crystal Panoramic Express, first-class coaches are comfortably air-conditioned and have very large windows. The little red train winds up and down and around mountains and valleys, over and through the picturesque Swiss landscape, taking seven and a half-hours to cover the 165 miles between Zermatt and St. Moritz. Other, less celebrated narrow gauge trains, travel the route throughout the day.
Lunch in the dining car is a particular treat, with very friendly service in a rustic/modern atmosphere: light-grained wood trim, wide windows, tables set with crisp linen and the famous bent-over wine glasses (given to passengers as souvenirs), which can be turned to keep the wine from spilling during the many banked curves. There are two separate servings of a set lunch; a satisfying meal of consume, spaghetti with tomato sauce, veal cutlet in mushroom gravy, cheese, fruit and coffee was about $50 for two. Reservations are essential in summer because of the popularity of this special train. Eurailpasses not accepted.
- Glacier Express Schedule: Lv Zermatt 8:54 a.m., Arr Chur 2:18 p.m., St. Moritz 4:58 p.m.. Lv St. Moritz 7:05 a.m., Chur 9:03 a.m., arrives Zermatt 2:45 p.m..
- Rating: Accommodations 5/10; Food and Drink 9/10; View 10/10; Total Score 24/30.
6. Swiss Intercity Lutetia: Geneva, Lausanne, Brig - Milan
"Lutetia" has an enchanting, intimate air small with especially comfortable open corridor cars and is best among a number of interesting trains which travel this pleasurable route. It was formerly famous as a TEE (Trans Europe Express), reserved exclusively for first-class passengers. Although later modified to include second-class cars, it has retained its distinctive appearance as well as the TEE logo.
Traveling south from Geneva, lakeside views during the early portion of the ride are followed by a mountainous ascent and passage through the 12-mile Simplon Tunnel which divides Italy and Switzerland. On a recent trip, the small dining car was run by a single attendant who hurried aboard with fresh croissants, then served continental breakfast and a light lunch ($20-35) on the four and a half-hour journey. Reservations required.
- IC 330/3 Lutetia Schedule: Lv Geneva 1034 a.m. (Airport 10 minutes earlier) Arr Milan 2:40 p.m. Lv Milan 9:10 a.m., Arr Geneva 1:16 p.m. (Airport 10 minutes later).
- Rating: Accommodations 8/10; Food and drink 7/10; View 8/10; Total Score 23/30.
7. German ICE Panda: Zürich and Basel - Hamburg
With its separate diner and wide, comfortable and very quiet coaches, the 167 m.p.h. German ICE is our favorite among European fast trains, the only one where it is possible to eat restaurant-style meals in a location separate from ones seat (others have small snack bars and serve in-place meals). Coaches combine corridor seating large armchairs with soft head-cushions and glassed-in compartments seating five. Commodious and secure spaces are provided for carry-on luggage. Panda is one of three daily runs of these luxurious trains between Zürich and Hamburg. ICE trains also serve Munich, Frankfurt, and other major German cities.
Well before departure, on a recent morning trip from Zürich, tables in the dining end of the restaurant/bistro car were set with white linen and orange-accented china. Decor is strikingly modern and deceptively spacious-looking with pale-tinted walls, an arched wood lattice ceiling, enlivened by wooden trellises and brass trim. A kitchen in the center served both the diner and bistro. Breakfast included orange juice, scrambled or boiled eggs, ham and cheese, a basket of fresh croissants, coarse-grained bread and pumpernickel rolls. Reservations advised.
- ICE 76/7 Panda Schedule: Lv Zürich 6:45 a.m. (Airport 20 minutes earlier), Basel 7:51 a.m., Arr Hamburg 2:34 p.m.. Lv Hamburg 12:37 p.m., Arr Basel 7:11 p.m., Zürich 815 p.m. (Airport 20 minutes later).
- Rating: Accommodations 9/10; Food and Drink 9/10; View 5/10; Total Score 22/30
8. French L'Arbalete: Zürich and Basel - Paris
The two fast trains on this route, L'Arbalete and Le Corbusier, have traditional compartments as well as corridor-style seating for first-class passengers. But L'Arbalete carries a sleekly modern French restaurant car while Le Corbusier serves distinctly mediocre airline-style, in-place meals. L'Arbalete is the clear choice, with its restful ambiance and gracious service, and excellent though expensive French meals ($40-50 per person including main course, dessert and a small bottle of wine). Reservations advised.
- EC 114/5 L'Arbalete Schedule: Lv Zürich 7:12 a.m., Basel 8:23 a.m., arrives Paris Est 1:12 p.m.. Lv Paris Est 5:00 p.m., arrives Basel 9:40 p.m., Zürich 10:47 p.m..
- Rating: Accommodations 6/10; Food and Drink 9/10; View 6/10. Total Score 21/30.
9. Swiss Bernina Express: Chur - Tirano, Italy (narrow gauge)
Sharing a portion of its route with Glacier Express, this ride of nearly 90 miles twists back and forth up a glacier past treeless slopes between 11,000 foot mountains, then descends to the lovely town of Poschiavo, before continuing into Tirano, which has a rail connection to Milan. The coaches are comfortable, albeit conventional in design. Food service is from a cart.
Except for Bernina Express, which runs once per day each way, service over this route consists of separate hourly segments with convenient transfers. Although Eurailpasses are valid on this privately-owned railroad, a prior reservation and payment of 6 Sfr. is required prior to boarding.
- Bernina Express Schedule: Lv Chur 8:57 a.m., Arr Poschiavo 12:03 p.m., Tirano 12:40 p.m. Lv Tirano 3:05 p.m., Arr Poschiavo 3:52, Chur 6:55 p.m..
- Rating: Accommodations 5/10; Food and Drink 5/10; View 10/10; Total Score 20.
10. Orient Express: Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg - Paris (overnight)
On a cold Salzburg evening, bound for Paris, our sleeping compartment seemed an especially cozy haven, made up for day use with its three-seater couch of green plush upholstery. Although not as elegant as the refurbished and privately run Venice-Simplon-Orient Express (Eurailpasses not valid), this Orient Express provides good overnight comfort for much less money.
Our room contained the usual convertible desk-sink. Toilets and a small food-service area were down the hall. We were cautioned to keep both inside bolts locked during the night.
It was a long journey through many cars to reach the dining car, then...suddenly!...a Hungarian restaurant; brightly lit and lively, with red-coated waiters, glowing red shaded lamps, red lace tablecloths, white lace curtains, striped seats, and an international clientèle. The imaginatively written menu had some intriguing Hungarian and continental selections: "Transylvanian Goulasch;" "Paprika Chicken with Gnocchi." We had a salad of pickled cabbage with hot green peppers, lettuce and cucumber; then roast beef with mushrooms and green parsley sauce with rice and fried potatoes and, for dessert, a sort of Hungarian "Twinkie" chocolate-covered cake with chocolate cream filling ($37 including wine and tip). Eurailpasses accepted, sleeping compartments approximately $100/person additional.
- EN 466/7 Orient Express Schedule: Lv Paris Est 7:43 p.m. (diner added in morning), Arr Salzburg 5:53 a.m. next morning, Vienna 9:25 a.m., Budapest 1:28 p.m.. Lv Budapest Keleti 3:30 p.m. (with diner to Salzburg), Arr Vienna 7:40 p.m., Salzburg 11:07 p.m., Paris Est 9:31 a.m. next morning.
- Rating: Accommodations 6/10; Food and drink 8/10; View 5/10; Total Score 19.
Using European Trains
First-class, of course, is preferable, mainly because it is less crowded and more spacious. For individual trips reserve 30-60 days ahead. During summer and holiday times, popular trains such as the German Panda (Zürich-Hamburg) will be nearly full, even in first-class. In the more crowded second-class it is even more important to reserve. If boarding without a reservation, check the sign outside each compartment to see if there are vacant seats, or look for the "non-reserved" sign on a seat back in corridor cars. Within Switzerland no seats are reserved except on trains with international destinations (i.e. Transalpin: Zürich - Vienna) and special trains such as the Glacier Express.
Although checking is possible, it is usually more convenient to carry bags. Try to limit baggage to one suitcase with wheels which can be carried up and down stairs. Although some cities have free luggage carts and some have escalators, stairs in others will challenge your stamina if your load is too great. When the trip ends, be ready with bags by the exit door because many stops are only for one or two minutes.
One of the greatest pleasures of train travel is "dinner in the diner." Food on European trains is better and more expensive than on Amtrak. Expect to pay about the same as in a moderately expensive restaurant in your destination city: $35-$60 for a three-course meal without beverages. Within Switzerland if you order a meal you can stay in the dining car for the entire journey. Elsewhere there may be two sittings (reserved ahead of time), and if you choose the first you will have to vacate for the next group of diners. Between meals the diner is usually open for light snacks, beverages and socializing.
Prices and schedules current for 1996